People embroiled in conflict express themselves in many different ways; some contain themselves in steely silence, others let rip with verbal tirades. But there is one behaviour that is close to universal and may be the one thing that most exacerbates and prolongs the suffering of conflict. By the same token, if it could be reversed, conflicts would find a faster and happier resolution. So what can the HR professional do to help bring this about?
A few months ago, we carried out a piece of research to provide advice for first time users of workplace mediation. Advice was sought from over 60 people in 40 different organisations with experience of mediation. One word recurred, without prompting, with striking frequency. The word was “open”. The message was that if parties can open up to one another and to new ways of thinking, they are more likely to find satisfaction from mediation. A full 50% of the people who had been through the mediation process advised first-time users to be “open” or “open-minded”.
So why is this so important? Think of a time when you were in conflict with another person; you very likely had a sense of being under threat. Perhaps you were tempted to close yourself off to the apparent source of the threat, namely the other party to the conflict. It would be a logical thing to do: if we are feeling vulnerable, why expose ourselves to further risk by expressing our inner thoughts and feelings? Yet, paradoxically, this tendency to close ourselves off reinforces the emotional barrier between us, and thus reinforces the conflict itself.
There is also a tendency to entrench ourselves in our existing positions and beliefs, thus closing ourselves off to unexpected possibilities and new ways of thinking. We might insist that the only way forward is if the other party apologises, or we might be adamant that meeting face-to-face will only result in a shouting match so refuse to meet. By clinging to our stated views, we may gain a sense of temporary security. But given the power of our expectations to dictate our reality, we also reduce the chances of a more positive outcome.
So the behaviour which exacerbates and prolongs the suffering of conflict is this tendency to close oneself off to the other party and to new ways of seeing the situation. Hence the advice to first-time mediation users given in our research: “Arrive with an open mind; there are always two sides to every story… Being bullish is unhelpful, especially to your own state of mind.” And likewise: “Open yourself to the possibility of mediation improving your relationship.”
Opening up, however, is often the last thing we want to do. So how can we make use of the insights gained from this research to help soothe conflict in the workplace?
Firstly, it can help to simply understand that people in conflict are feeling under threat. Their behaviour may be childish or ugly, but it is most likely motivated by fear. By recognising and not judging them for this, we can make a difference. In fact, whenever we judge people in conflict to be wrong, we are adding fuel to the fire. When people sense, even unconsciously, that they are being judged, their threat level can rise, leading them to retreat further into their battle positions.
As well as finding compassion for people in conflict, we can also offer them opportunities that make it as easy as possible for them to open up. For instance, in order for disputing parties to open up to one another, they need to communicate directly. Most formal dispute resolution processes preclude this from happening. Proceedings are tightly controlled by a judge or arbitrator who directs the questioning, leaving no space for the parties to talk directly to one another, even if they wanted to. Another factor that can greatly increase the chances of parties opening up is the presence of a non-judgemental third party.
Usually, when a third party steps in, they will form judgements which they will express consciously or otherwise. It takes training and high self-awareness to refrain from doing so. A third factor that can help to be open-minded is knowing that what they say will be confidential. People often fear that what they say will be kept on record and used against them in some way in the future. This can reinforce the tendency to clam up for fear of saying the wrong thing and being held forever to account.
Whilst none of these factors guarantees that the parties will open up to one another or to new ways of thinking, they can provide the circumstances most conducive to their doing so. Mediation is a process that is designed to achieve these conditions: it offers disputing parties the chance to talk directly and freely to one another, with the support of a non-judgemental mediator operating under a strict code of confidentiality. If parties do choose to engage in workplace mediation, and if they are able to enter the process without pre-judging what will happen or how they or the other party will behave, they stand a strong chance of reaching the kind of turning point that will help them to move beyond their conflict.